Women’s History Month: Can You Name #5womenartists?

Did you know that even though women make up 51% of visual artists today, in the U.S. only 5% of work on museum walls is by women? It is no surprise that if you ask someone to name five artists, they will likely list prominent male artists.


Share social media posts with #5womenartists; Photo: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

This March, for Women’s History Month, NMWA leads a social media campaign to help everyone answer the question, Can you name five women artists? Join the museum and other institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Guggenheim Bilbao, to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5womenartists on Twitter and Instagram. Find out more about the initiative in this artnet article.

Are you interested in participating? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Challenge your friends and family to name five women artists.
  2. Tell us who your favorite women artists are and why.
  3. Share a work by a woman artist at a museum or gallery near you.
  4. Explore NMWA’s artist profiles to discover artists you may not know.

Left to right: Artwork by Alma Thomas, Rosalba Carriera, Maria Sibylla Merian, Hester Bateman, and Frida Kahlo; Photos: NMWA

To kick off the month, learn more about five women artists from the museum’s collection who broke barriers and influenced future generations:

In 1921, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978) was the first fine arts student to graduate from Howard University in Washington, D.C. During her 35-year career as a teacher at a D.C. junior high school, she was devoted to her students and organized art clubs, lectures, and student exhibitions.

Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757), a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, was responsible for elevating the status of pastel from its use for sketches to a respected medium in its own right. Over the span of its existence, the Academy, which had approximately 450 members in total, only admitted 15 women.


Visitors examine Petah Coyne’s work; Photo: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

At the age of 52, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) and her young daughter embarked on a risky trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. She recorded indigenous flora and fauna and helped 18th-century scientists understand metamorphosis.

Hester Bateman (1709–1794) inherited her husband’s silver workshop after he died. She made the business profitable and her descendants helped the workshop thrive until the mid-19th century. The key to her success was the integration of modern technology with classical design—a cost-effective way to attract middle-class buyers.

Referenced in her New York Times obituary as the “wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter,” Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) soared in fame posthumously. She became the first 20th-century Mexican artist to have work acquired by the Louvre. In the 1980s, numerous books were published about her work by feminist art historians and others.

Stacy Meteer is the communications and marketing associate at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Venetian Virtuoso: Rosalba Carriera

Born in Venice, Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) was the daughter of a clerk and a lace-maker. Largely self-taught, she began her artistic career painting miniature portraits. Carriera employed ivory as the ground for her miniatures instead of the typical material for her time, vellum. Such works quickly solidified her reputation within Italian art circles and gained her acceptance into Rome’s prestigious Accademia di San Luca in 1704.

By her early twenties, Carriera was using pastel—the medium for which she later became famous. Previously the powdered pigment bound into sticks was used mostly for informal drawings and preparatory sketches. Carriera revolutionized its use for serious portraiture. Her works were admired for their velvety color palettes and striking details.

She received commissions from the courts of Modena, Vienna, and Dresden. In 1720, Carriera spent a successful year in Paris, where she visited renowned art collections, met French artists, and created portraits of prominent individuals, including the young Louis XV.

She later worked in Modena and Austria, assisted by her sister Giovanna. In Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI became her patron and the empress became her pupil. Her greatest patron, Augustus III of Poland, sat for her in 1713 and amassed more than 150 of her pastels.

Carriera primarily used pastel for portraits and allegorical images. In the 18th century, artists often personified the continents by using female figures in distinctive clothing. At the time, Europe recognized four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. Carriera’s allegorical work in NMWA’s collection, America, represents the region as a woman in costume. The realistic flesh tones of the figure exemplify Carriera’s skill with pastel. She included a jeweled headband, feather hair accessory, and a quiver of arrows to allude to Europeans’ common associations with America. Her ability to capture the textures of rich fabrics and accessories was appealing to her wealthy patrons.

Carriera suffered emotional trauma following her sister Giovanna’s death in 1738 and the loss of her own eyesight, which began eight years later. By 1749 she was permanently blind and unable to work. However, Carriera enjoyed such extensive fame that for subsequent women artists, to be called a “modern Rosalba” was high praise. Renowned French portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842) earned the moniker decades after Carriera’s death, as Carriera’s oeuvre continued to influence artists such as Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.